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Panel: a stronger public sector might mitigate "oversuccess," but developer reality is scarce

The second-to-last panel in the series related to Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York, dubbed The Oversuccessful City, Part 1: Developers' Realities, like several predecessor events, aired a good deal of unease concerning the city's situation, with a partial menu of solutions.

The panel, held Tuesday night at the spanking new Times Center, was summarized by the New York Times under a headline “Can New York Be Too Successful?”, with the conclusion that “no one really argued that the city could be too successful.”

That missed the point; “the dilemmas of affordable housing and out-of-scale development” are exactly a challenge resulting from what Jacobs called “oversuccess," and the solution, at least as some panelists suggested, is a stronger public sector.

The discussion, featuring Eugenie Birch of the University of Pennsylvania, Carlton Brown of Full Spectrum NY, Douglas Durst of the Durst Organization, and Greg O'Connell of Kings Harbor, touched on some pressing issues but didn't hone in on a fundamental question billed as a subject of the program: “What motivates developers and what constrains them?”

Money questions hardly came up. Brown and O’Connell, smaller-scale developers compared to Durst, were periodically candid about their goals and some bumps along the way, Durst remained fairly taciturn. He offered one savvy observation, noting that a slowdown in bonding capacity has hindered the Queens West project. (Unmentioned was that that also affects Atlantic Yards.)

Nor was there much discussion of what Jacobs said. There was widespread endorsement of mandatory affordable housing in new developments, without recognition that such a formulation may not be applicable in all neighborhoods, or--as Benjamin Hemric, a close reader of Jacobs, pointed out on the Times blog--that Jacobs wasn't much for some of the stronger public planning that participants endorsed.

(Hemric added: Also, virtually no reference was made to Jacobs’ extensive writings about oversuccess and the self-destruction of diversity (including an entire chapter in “Death and Life” entitled, “The Self Destruction of Diversity”) and the ways she felt were best to deal with this phenomenon: 1) “zoning for diversity” (which did not necessarily mean what is today called “inclusionary zoning”); 2) the use of the “staunchness of public buildings”; and creating the conditions for 3) “competitive diversion.”)

A changing city

Birch, the only city planner on the panel—she chairs the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania, said that “we need to think about” the meaning of “oversuccessful” and what measures we use. Three decades ago, when the the city was in fiscal straits and even after the 9/11 attacks, there was much pessimism. So success is fragile, she said, but New York is a product of a successful population. A clear vision is needed to harness such success.

While Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030 “is a beginning,” we need more long-term and visionary thinking. She pointed out three major issues. One is that three significant projects in process or planned—Atlantic Yards, the West Side yards project, and a new Moynihan Station—are proceeding under state rather than the city's Hudson Yards proposal will go through city review, rather than be shepherded by the Empire State Development Corporation.) “What has happened” to the city’s capacity to plan and lead development, she asked.

New transportation projects, including the 7 subway extension on the West Side, the Second Avenue subway, and a possible new rail tunnel under the Hudson River, require public discussion of “the development potential” around them.

She also said that “we probably have the most participatory planning” process in the country, citing the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP). However, she called the rise of Community Benefit Agreements (CBAs) alarming, because they represent deals between developers and community groups outside of public review. “Is this the way we want to be planning and negotiating our future?” While she didn’t name any names, the first—and perhaps most criticized—local CBA involves Atlantic Yards.

Developers speak

Durst, developer of the Conde Nast building and the new Bank of America Tower, gave what the Times called “a more succinct response” to the question at hand: “What we really have to be doing is planning for the increasing size and success of the city.” Well, of course—the question is how, and Durst wasn’t about to offer specifics.

Brown, a Brooklynite who runs a development company based in Harlem, reflected on Jacobs, suggesting that a successful city has “a shared experience,” now threatened by increasing costs of living. If the city becomes so successful that “all its voices can’t be heard,” he warned, the sources of success can be its downfall. Still, he said he thought we can manage the change.

O’Connell, a retired detective who started buying in Red Hook long before anyone imagined its revival, said that he can’t accommodate all the demand from small business and non-profit organizations, and noted the neighborhood can’t accommodate the newly-arrived immigrants seeking decent affordable housing. “In Red Hook, the challenge has been to create a balance,” he said. “I don’t see that. I don’t see any long-term planning.”

“I wish,” he said, “they had better planning 25 years ago” to cope with the growth today. O’Connell, who had advantage of buying when property was cheap, observed that, with residential development, he could make three to four times a much as he currently earns from commercial rent.

The European model?

Moderator Charles Bagli, who covers real estate and economic development for the New York Times, asked whether rezonings, the loss of industrial space, and the loss of working-class housing might move New York more into “a European model,” with a prosperous core and a working class on the outskirts. “Is the city becoming exclusively for the rich?”

While his formulation applied more to Manhattan than the boroughs, Birch gave him a general answer. “New York sits back and waits” for developers to propose rezonings. “The city is not proactive; it’s reactive.” Actually, it’s more of a mixed bag; in certain neighborhoods, such as Jamaica, the city rezoning has been quite proactive, ahead of developers.

Emerging tensions

Brown suggested there was room for manufacturing, especially local development of green products for future green construction.

Bagli pointed to the tension of development in an industrial zone, suggesting that, if housing is built on the site of the former Revere Sugar Refinery in Red Hook, new residents likely will object to the smells and sounds of the nearby maritime industry.

“We’ve got to think hard and fast before we lose the working waterfront,” O’Connell said.

“It’s more than hard and fast, it’s comprehensively,” Birch responded.

Back to Jane

Bagli steered the conversation back to Jacobs, asking if it was still possible to create the kind of neighborhoods Jacobs prized.

“Of course we can do it,” Birch said, noting that Jacobs “was a gentrifier” in the West Village.

Brown noted that the “big projects” under consideration might be “mixed-use,” thus following a Jacobsian precept, but would not be “mixed users,” suggesting they’d only serve the better-off.

Affordable housing

“I don’t think we can re-create Greenwich Village,” Birch said. But if it’s our priority to create “workforce housing,” developers can be mandated to provide 20% to 30% affordable housing. (Unmentioned is that such a percentage—actually, about 38% if you count the affordable for-sale units onsite—is a justification for Atlantic Yards, though counterarguments are that the affordable housing skews toward the better-off high and also has been used to justify an out-of-scale project.)

Bagli pointed out that Durst’s proposal for the West Side yards, as with competing proposals, includes affordable housing.

Durst gave his endorsement. “I believe any development should include an 80/20 program. It’s produced a tremendous amount of affordable and market-rate housing.”

Brown noted public guidance can produce good projects; he cited his firm’s bid for a new project in the Brooklyn Academy of Music cultural district, which will include rehearsal and performance space for DanceSpace and almost 200 apartments, 50% of which would be affordable housing. (That percentage is possible because the land comes cheap.)

"It sort of reflects a healthy fabric for a city," he said. "It didn't happen by chance. It happened because there was a plan to make it happen. The average developer... would not have done that on their own, but if the city has a requirement to do that... people respond."

Gridlock at Flatbush & Atlantic

Bagli wondered if the growth in the city was contributing to too much gridlock. "First Avenue is a parking lot during rush hour," he said. "My daughter was living in Park Slope, and one Saturday afternoon, nothing's going on, I had to drive through that intersection, Flatbush and Atlantic Avenue—what an idiot I was.... And then we went back through that intersection--it took an hour!"

(No one made the point, but that's one of the chief arguments against the Atlantic Yards project, which would be adjacent to that intersection.)

“Why were you driving?” Birch riposted. “You should have been taking the subway.”
Philadelphia would love to have the problems New York has, she said, suggesting that congestion pricing could manage the challenge.

Bagli suggested the transit system was at capacity.

“We have not invested in our mass transit,” Birch responded.

Other issues

Bagli wondered if the city was losing its character. Birch suggested it still retains its vibrancy. Brown, however, suggested there were challenges, because young people who wish to pursue artistic pursuits—people crucial to the future of the city—are being priced out.

The panel touched on a number of other issues; Brown suggested that archaic regulation could be eased to change the way we built. He praised the Durst Organization for leading the way in using green materials and thus getting lenders used to the concept.

Durst cited the need to reduce congestion to cut the cost of bringing materials to construction sites. He went out on a limb: “I agree with Jane Jacobs that the automobile is anathema to the city.”

Back to housing

They got back to the issue of housing. O’Connell agreed inclusionary zoning should be mandatory, especially if there’s a zoning change that adds value to land. (That’s what the city’s been doing.) “Why not share a part of the profit?”

Brown suggested that subsidies should not just support housing but cultural institutions in new communities. Durst said the 80/20 program has been proven to work.

Bagli wondered if that was enough. “The city, the federal government; they’re not building housing.” He noted that the Queens West project, announced at 5000 units affordable for the middle-class, has switched to a project with likely 40% market-rate units and has yet to get off the ground.

“It’s because of the land of bonding capacity,” Durst observed, citing a central developer’s reality otherwise absent from the discussion.

Brown noted that “’affordable housing’ is a magical word that means a whole lot of things to a whole lot of people.” And it’s not something the city and private developers can solve on their own, he said, calling it a federal problem. “I don’t think they are any single silver bullets.”

Who's in charge?

Birch returned to the issue of the ESDC managing large-scale developments, which “says something… needs to be fixed.” The reason: “large scale developers have found that ULURP is cumbersome and unpredictable.” However, she said, there’s something very good about the process, since it lets people express their ideas. The process needs to be improved.

Brown said he’d had good and bad experiences in ULURP, but if “you take off your developer’s hat and just look at it as a resident of Brooklyn,” he said, referring to himself, “You say it’s a good process, because it allows a community to have voice.”

Brooklynite Michael White asked Durst if the public should be disheartened that the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) went to bat for the “Atlantic Yards carve-out.” Durst responded that REBNY never takes positions against a member and also said that developers won’t work together.

Williamsburg resident Steven Frankel, a critic of the New Domino plan, said residents are concerned that many developers are seeking zoning variances and affordable housing is being used as a wedge. While his point was that such projects are proceeding beyond the recent rezoning of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, Birch defended the rezoning without addressing his point.

Community planner Ron Shiffman lamented that the city's waterfront rezoning ignored the need for new kinds of live-work buildings to maintain density and industry. "It's the state process that needs to be fixed," he said. "It shouldn't become a process where zoning and planning is for sale."

Affordable housing shouldn't be a wedge issue, dangled as a carrot, but rather part and parcel of development rules.

Shiffman noted that parking is required with housing; why not affordability? Brown and O'Connell said they agreed with mandatory affordable housing in new developments. (No one got to the issue of rent regulation.)

Birch observed, "The bottom line is, someone has to pay for it." Forty years ago, the state agreed to fund the Mitchell-Lama program, she noted.

Esthetics?

One audience member questioned whether ugly buildings that lack an esthetic relationship to the community could be stopped. "We cannot do what we call esthetic zoning," Birch replied.

"I think architecture can become more creative," Brown said, suggesting that it was not the time to build "new brownstones." He saluted "this organic growth" that layers buildings from various eras in a neighborhood, "so it doesn't look like some master planner who said 'this is what thou shall have.'"

It sounded, just maybe, like he was talking about Atlantic Yards.

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